Engo Abroad

Location: Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Short Week, Long Weekend

This week was quite a reminder to me about how much I miss having the three day weekends of old. Ah, well, have to grow up sometime, I guess.

Class was no big deal since I had had an assignment ready for the class. It's always nice walking into a class knowing that they will be doing most of the work. Plus, for some reason only five to ten students are showing up to my junior classes, and the majority of my classes are, in fact, juniors. Classes go a lot more smoothly when you only have to talk to a small group, and they are a lot more likely to engage in a conversation then. All in all, a fine week of classes.
Travelling, sadly, did not take place because Sharjil wasn't feeling well and needed the weekend to recover, but it was no big deal to me. A nice, quiet, extended weekend sounded fine to me. It was especially dull, however, because the boys all went to Qingdao, I guess. It was a weekend just with the girls. That really just meant earlier nights in the grand scheme of things.

No real adventures or anything. Thursday, I got to try Christ's (a restaurant whose name is apparently short for Christof). Western style food, I got a pizza which was pretty good. They had some sort of super beer for fifty yuan that I almost got just because of its name--"Delirium Nocturna." Sounds delicious, no? Even so, I just couldn't validate six dollars for a beer around here. One day, maybe.

The funny thing about this trip was that we had to pass Modern Times Bar. The manager noticed us and came running out to invite us in. Turns out that she recognized the girls from when they came out with Brock's exclusive invite or whatever. She followed us down the hall until we told her we would eat first and stop by later (fully intending on skipping out on the far elevator where she wouldn't see us). When we came out of the restaurant, however, she was standing there waiting for us, so of course we had to go for at least one. The place was really nice, but it's too expensive for my taste. She gave us a free fruit plate, though, so maybe they deserve a check out every now and then.

Friday, Sharjil and I wanted to go down to the eggplant restaurant down the street, but it was way too packed for the time available. We tried a different restaurant on the way, and in the process we overcame some minor difficulties. It was our first time at this particular restaurant (always a challenge), and they had neither a picture or English menu (bigger challenge). Luckily, we managed to pull out a few phrases and managed to get quite a nice meal. After that, I thought we'd be having some fun on the town, but the scene was pretty dull. I ended up leaving just to make sure I made curfew. Nice talk with Anthony and Sharjil, though, in addition to the girls.

Saturday, Hil talked me into a trip to Pizza-Hut, and them's some great left-overs to have. We decided to go straight to YYBB just to kill time until the rest of the group caught up. I'm again expecting some big fun, but we spent the majority of the night at Youth Year. Still a good time, of course, but just another weekend, really.

Anyway, I ended up trying to crash at Meredith's, but I was still awake at six this morning so I just got up and caught a cab home. Not surprisingly, I slept all day. Now I have to deal with the fact that I have class in less than six hours, probably won't be tired for another few hours (let alone sleeping), and still don't have my lesson plan done. I had planned on doing American versus British spoken English, but I'm starting to think I can't fill two hours that way. Who knows...

Bah, and there's still so many weeks left in the semester...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A bit of the old ultra-violence? No, I'm Spartacus!

(For Beijing, see below. I decided to break up the posts.)

So another week in short.

Had to teach Sunday, and that of course wasn't pleasent. Less pleasent, of course, was trying to come up with a lesson plan Sunday night. I had wanted to do music, but I still lack the speakers. Hopefully after next pay day... At the last minute, I decided to just tell my students about Beijing (a lesson in story-telling, officially) and then ask them for stories. As none of them were willing to talk at that first class, I decided to assign them to tell a story next time, each of them, one by one. I followed that with a preview for the music unit with a list of some of the bands we would be studying to give a broad idea of music in the last fifty years: Beatles, Zeppelin, Beegees, M.J. and Madonna, various hair metal bands, NWA, Eminem, Nirvana, and so forth. An ambitious project, and no doubt. Follow that with a little jazz, folk, and country (though only country because they insisted) and we have ourselves four to six weeks of lessons covered. All I have to do is pick the songs and copy the lyrics. Sweet deal.

Of course, I was not informed that my afternoon classes were all cancelled. I showed up to them, waited for a half-hour, and finally went home. Twice. Another common occurence in China: you'll not be informed of anything in due time unless you are being held responsible for something. Something as trivial as "your classes are cancelled today" or "your schedule is now completely different" or "we've decided to change your payday to two weeks later" you won't find out about until it's already happened. When in China...

The rest of the week pretty much went as normal and is undeserving of comment. Friday night, I actually stayed in and amazingly was very productive. Clean room, laundry done, some various work taken care of... very proud of myself. Saturday, we went out to a Japanese place wherein I had a very good curry (go figure), but the bar scene was dull so I came home early. Today has, yet again, been uneventful, but I really needed this dull (and cheap) refueling weekend for the adventure to come. Got a four day weekend this week, and hopefully there will be some (short) travelling involved. I haven't much cash left to throw at it, but we'll see what we can manage.

So, my week? A full series of Nip/Tuck, and now working through the works of Stanley Kubrick. For the most part, the quality has been good. Only three or so episodes of Nip/Tuck were unwatchable and the latter half of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but other than that everything has been successful thus far. An excellent deal for $35, no?

Adventure One: Beijing

Oy, it's gonna be a monster of an entry. Luckily, I turned this little adventure into my lesson for the week, so it should still be fresh.

So Sunday we set off for Beijing, and I got my first taste of Chinese train stations. These people seem to have the acute ability to pack infinite people into finite space. It's really quite amazing. What is even more amazing is the lack of organization. We have a little thing call a "line" in the West (or queue, if you prefer). That seems quite a foreign concept here. The idea seems more to be to just push forward and hard and hope you make it to the gate. If you can manage to hop a chair or a barrier to pop right up at the front, then good for you and your enterprising nature. Being bigger than most of the people on this continent, I wasn't terribly worried about myself, but I did kinda wonder if Hilary might get swallowed whole into the crowd. Finally, though, we did make it onto the train, and the ride wasn't so bad. Our tickets (for seats 75 and 76, mind you) sat us fairly far separated, however, so it started out a bit dull. A guy eventually struck up a conversation with me. He had graduated as an English major last year and is now working for an international hotel. It's interesting how much you can pick up about a culture based entirely on what questions are asked of you; it really highlights the differences. Bai was certain, for example, that Hilary and I were married, Russian, and that I was significantly older than he (25) and that she was significantly younger. He felt it was innappropriate to ask our ages, though, so he played the reverse game of asking me to guess how old he was so that I would then tell him how old we were. Sneaky little devil, but very common around here. He also was very curious about weddings and marriages. Apparently he's now under considerable pressure from his parents to marry within the year despite the fact that he doesn't have a girlfriend at the moment. Seems awfully fast to me. A good guy overall, though, and he really helped speed the journey along.

Upon reaching Beijing and somehow managing to communicate to the taxi where we wanted to go, we finally arrived at our hostel to find the boys drinking--heavily. We soon found out that they had good reason to be...upset.
The boys had spent their first day in Beijing wandering about, seeing the sites, etc. While poking about Tianamen Square, they were approached by this super friendly woman. She claimed to be an English teacher from Mongolia, and she offered to guide them around the city for the chance to practice her English. Off they went seeing this and that for a couple hours, and everything seemed to be going well. They even bought her ice cream and took pictures with her. At some point, she asks them if they'd like to try some traditional Chinese tea, and the boys decide to go for it. She takes them to a fairly sketchy looking building, but at this point she had gained some level of trust from them. They go in, sit down, and she orders for them. They get three cups each of six kinds of tea, and she tells them a little about each. Then they get the bill--2,500 yuan. That's a little over $300, nearly as much as I make in a month. The only response they get from their friendly guide is "Oh, I'm so sorry; it's never been that expensive..." They pay up and are on their way, but later come upon some other foreigners. While their guide was away for a moment, these foreigners approached the boys and said, "Have you been to the teahouse yet?" "Yeah." "You've been robbed, mate." Turns out they recognized the "guide" as the same woman that had taken them and a few other groups at our hostel in the last few days. One must admit, she was good. So the boys go back to the teahouse demanding a refund, things got fairly fierce, the police were called, and so on. They found out that the police had actually been raiding teahouses recently because this was becoming a very common con. They managed to get 800 back, but one must admit that's still a substantial amount of cash to throw away on tea--hence the very heavy drinking at the hostel. Can't really blame them, can you?

The hostel itself was very nice, though. The rooms were cleaner than any I've seen in China, and the bed was a hell of a lot more comfortable than mine (despite the fact that it was basically just stuffing on a piece of wood). The best part was they had a nice bar with a big screen and a decent collection of DVDs for any time that we just needed to kill time, plus they could make some decent Western food which was a nice change of pace after two months here. All in all, an excellent base of operations.

Monday, I slept late, and deservedly so, I think. After six consecutive day of teaching and another day of travel, I needed the rest. Still up in time for dinner and bar-hopping, that's the important thing.

Tuesday we decided on the Beijing Zoo, greatest in all of China. In truth, it pales next to Omaha Zoo, but don't tell them that. First, though, we had to make it to the zoo, and that meant becoming aquainted with the Chinese buses... Much like the train station, I got to witness the sheer mass of people that can be inserted into a space far too small for all of them, with the added bonus that on the bus momentum pushes you to and fro meaning from time to time your face is in someone's armpit. Simply a glorious means of travel, you see. But we made it to the zoo, and lucky us, we're going to get to see real pandas. So straight on to the panda house and what do we find? Four cages with four sleeping pandas. Not the most exciting entertainment, plus the push through the throngs of people all lacking any sense of personal space or taking of turns really took the smeg. Anyway, we wandered about and saw pretty much a zoo with one important difference. We saw a crowd gathered around a bench, and when we investigated the source of their interest, we found that you could take a picture with a chimp. Now, let me give you the full picture here. There is a chimp with a zoo keeper sitting out in the open, no cage or wall of any kind. Anyone can come up and pay 20 yuan to get a picture with him; however, when you sit down before they set the chimp next to you, they say "Don't look at him don't touch him don't say anything" because at any moment that chimp could flip out and kill you like the ninjas of realultimatepower.net. In America, this is a lawsuit waiting to happen; in China, this is a source of income with acceptable risk.

Wednesday, big day. We're going to see the Wall. Unfortunately, this means taking a four hour bus ride there and back (the bus of course being oversold on tickets). So I take this extremely uncomfortable bus ride to tightly packed to nap (which I desperately needed at 7:00 in the morning) and arrive to find out that this journey isn't just "seeing the Wall" but hiking 10km at a 70 degree angle. My legs instantly remembered Mount Xian. I had the option, of course, to get out at the first gate and skip the hike, but I would have been doing it alone, and what would be the point of that? So we get started on this march, and I of course was instantly falling behind. My solution, then, is to catch up when others are taking pictures and just keep moving so that they pass me but I have time to catch up again at the next picture taking session and so on. This solution worked out well for a while, but at some point I must have passed the rest of the group without realizing it while they were on top of a tower. I started panicking because I should have seen them by that point, but I couldn't see them ahead or behind me (as they were on top of a tower, of course). Now I'm certain that I'm going to be too late to catch the bus and they'll leave me behind and how the hell am I going to get back I don't know where the hell I am or where a train station is or how to get anywhere and I sure as hell am not going to pay a taxi to take me all the way back to Beijing four hours away. So what do I do? With the adrenaline rush of being alone in an incomprehensible land, I started near sprinting the wall. Spent quite a bit on water, of course, because every kilometer or so there is a little stand selling water at an incredible rate, and I needed two every time--one to drink, and one to dump on my head. It felt like a marathon, and I seriously wondered how likely I was to have a heartattack since, of course, there are no emergency services there, but by adrenaline and sheer will, I managed to be only 15 minutes late. Felt very much like football practice, really; all the physical pain in the world, but you still have to keep moving for reasons you can't even consider or understand at the time. Surely they would wait 15 minutes, though, right? So I'm scrambling around the parking lot unable to find the bus and then, there, finally, parked out on the road. I run up to it and what do I find? The bus is empty. I'm the first one back. While everyone else leisurely enjoyed the view and the walk, I raced over the wall. Fun. So I sat around, waiting for everyone to show up. We had almost everyone by 5:00, but we were still missing a few. By 5:30, most of the bus was demanding that we just leave them there; having been through the seemingly very real position that I would be left behind, I was more sympathetic, but outnumbered in such a way to keep my mouth shut. Seemed vaguely hypocritical as well, thouch, since all but four or five of us had been well over a half-hour late. They finally showed up at 6:00 to a rain of hate and seats on the floor. Well, it happens. No rest for the weary, though, as we made it back home and were out barhopping to celebrate the girls' last night (Meredith and Becky left early).

Thursday we took a much needed bed-in and got moving a little afternoon. We decided to spend the day at the Silk Market. The Silk Market is a blend of the stereotype you imagine with "market" and basically a giant mall. It has six floors of stalls selling everything: t-shirts, jeans, bags, luggage, jewlry, trinkets, toys, electronics, watches, swords, and so on and so on and so on. The phenomenon that caught my interest somewhere between bemusement and annoyance was that everytime I walked by a jeans stall, the woman running it would grab my arm and start yelling "We have your size! We have your size! Come see!" They, of course, didn't; there isn't a shirt or pair of pants on this whole continent that will fit me. We had a good time, nonetheless. Best part was that I got a very fast but very efficient crash course in bartering. My first purchase I was, of course, ripped off, but by the end of the day I was dealing with the best of them. A few good tricks: 1) "Wo shi laoshi" It means "I am a teacher." If you get them to understand that you aren't spending American tourist money but Chinese teaching wages, they'll know they can't get much money out of you. 2) Walk away. They'll do almost anything to make a sale, so just walk away when the bargaining slows down. 3) Never comment in any positive way on the merchandise, and do your best to be indifferent toward the product. My last purchase I paid less than one sixth of the opening price, and I never actually made an offer. I just kept saying that I didn't really think I needed it and that I didn't really want it and then showed my wallet which only had 100 in it anyway... Which brings me to my last tip 4) Keep all of your money in your pocket except for your top price which you keep in your wallet. Then, as a last ditch effort, you can just show your wallet and prove that this is as much as you can pay. They know, of course, of ATMs, but as often as not those don't work for many cards. The best part was that so many of them spoke English, so this communication was possible.

As we were leaving the Silk Market, we found on the steps many little men running around yelling (exclusively at the foreigners, of course) "DVDs! DVDs! You want! We sell!" Yeah, that doesn't look at all sketchy. We did see, however, a sign down the road a little advertising DVDs, so we figured it can't be illegal if they're that open about it. We walked into the store, and they seem to sell nothing but clothes... As we stood there confused, the girl at the front desk leaned over to us and whispered "DVDs?" "Um...yeah." So she lead us to the back of the store, reached around a mirror, and opened a small closet. Then she stepped into it and knocked on the wall. You've got to be kidding me... Then the wall OPENS UP to reveal a dark hallway. Considering that our little party had already been scammed once (plus Brock having been mugged twice), we weren't altogether comfortable with this, but curiousity got the better of us. Inside was a very small room lined with DVD cases. I say "cases" because all were empty--as I found out after I paid. I picked out the complete series (through season three, that is) of Nip/Tuck and the complete works of Stanley Kubrick (even more complete than the box set in the States). I paid for them, and the guy ran out of the room. Now I feel like I've been ripped off, as well. It turned out, though, that they keep the actual DVDs stashed in another building in case they were raided; since all they had were cases, there was no proof of any illegal activity. The guy finally came back with the DVDs stashed under his shirt, and they were kind enough to bag them in a clothing bag so that there would be no questions... Quite frankly, this was my favorite memory of Beijing; yes, we saw some great stuff, but this really felt like something out of a movie with secret knocks and contacts, like getting into a speakeasy or something. Stupid fun, but fun nonetheless.

Friday, we saw Tianamen for ourselves and wandered around a bit. It really is a pretty impressive sight, especially having seen it in so many documentaries and such. All-in-all, though, it was really just a wandering sort of day, no particular plan or purpose to it. That night, we had planned on going clubbing, but it really was horrifically expensive, so some more barhopping for us.

Saturday, we journeyed back to home (amazingly, we were all thinking of the Shiz as home by this point). The train ride was alright, but the highlight was that we convinced the guy sitting next to us that Charlie was our "special needs" friend, and without any knowledge or prompting, Charlie did in fact play the part with his silly hat and various expressions. Quite fun. Of course I got home and needed a shower after the traveling, and what happens? My shower head exploded. I can still shower with it, but I have to be fast because it leaks hot water at an incredible rate. Not going to be pleasent in the winter, but I also don't see the thing getting fixed any time soon.

So, Beijing in a nutshell... Lot of fun, great for a visit, wouldn't want to live there, but then I say the same about almost every city of considerable size.
Sorry for the delay on this, but it really was a monster to write. If you've been waiting long, you can thank my Aunt Becky and her timely message for finally getting this done. Say thank you, everyone.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Week in Short

Ok, I should have updated this week before now, but I got stuck with classes up through today, and I just couldn't be bothered. In a nutshell, I mostly got through class without incident up through Thursday. I made the mistake of going out Thursday night, was out way too late, had to break in to my own appartment, and missed my first class (which I had to make up later that night). Not my finest hour, but certainly proof that I can't be going out on weeknights. This deeply troubles me, because I already spend too much time alone, and this only heightens the problem.

Oh, almost forgot, I had my first banquet Wednesday night. It didn't nearly meet the hype, but they may have been because it was an older crowd (only two of us in the room under 40). Pretty good time, though, and a nice sampler of different foods.

So today I had to have my Thursday classes again (which I don't quite understand). We have "a week off" for the National Day break, but here they mean literally seven days. That means that the Saturday before break (today) and the Sunday at the end (the 8th) we have to have classes, but only Thursday and Friday classes for some reason. Great system they got here.

For the week off, we are all going to Beijing for the week. After reviewing my finances and the total costs, though, I'm not as certain now that this was such a good idea. I may have to dip into my American savings while I'm there, which I am not looking forward to... Otherwise, I'm living on very little for the following two and a half weeks or so. Well, we'll see. No reason to worry now.

Ok, I seriously need to get some sleep. Hopefully I'll return Saturday night with tales and adventures, but I very much doubt I'll actually post until Sunday night at the earliest (since I have to teach at 8:00 on Sunday, the hell is that?).

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Mount Xiantai, Terrace of the Goddess

Yes, well, let's just jump right into it.

Managed to get through the rest of my classes without incident for the week. One curiousity, though: I have one student who is practically fluent. He has a little bit of an accent, but it's something you really had to listen for. It was very impressive, and for a second I thought I had one of the news readers from CCTV9 (China's English news channel).

Friday I had my 8:00 and 10:00 on two hours of sleep, then decided to take a nap until the night's festivities began. Here was the plan: 4:00 -- take shuttle over to Hilary's. 4:30 -- take taxi to Club 42. 5:30 -- leave with whole crew (plus Wallace and Renae who were in town) to go to dinner. Rest of the night: bar hop. I, of course, would have to call it an early night because Hil and I had to go on an excursion the next morning (more on that to come).

Here's how closely I managed to follow the plan: 4:00 -- shuttle has left early. Next one in an hour. Return to my room to call Hilary. She's already left for the gate to pick me up. Leave her a message on AIM (assuming that she'll come back to her room to find out where I am). Take the next shuttle. It goes to the wrong stop three times, and of course I have to just get out at the last stop because God only knows where it would go next. So I look around the campus where it dropped me off hoping its just the other gate of Hil's campus. It's not. Luckily, I thought I saw a corner as we drove by that maybe I recognized... So I start searching the streets, I find the corner, and miraculously work my way back to her campus and rush to her room thinking "Shit, she's been waiting yet another 20 minutes on top of having to take the wrong shuttle, shit shit shit..." Yeah, she's not at the gate or her room. I found out later that when I didn't show up on the earlier shuttle, she just left.

So now what? I don't have the address for Club 42, my ride is now gone, and I don't have any phone numbers. Guess I'll just have to forget about dinner (which of course was delicious since I didn't get to go) and go home. Now how do I do that... I left my written address in my room since I wasn't going to be needing to get a taxi at any point in the evening. Well, I have to try, otherwise I'm stranded at West Campus until 11:00. I hail a taxi and do my best to relate the address ("hebei shida yuhua"). I've been told this is all it takes to get me home. The cabbie nods, but I end up in the wrong place. After a confusing exchange, I realize that he didn't catch the "hebei shida" part and just focused on "yuhua" (my street) but took me to "yuhualu" (Yuhua Street) rather than "yuhuadonglu" (East Yuhua Street). So we get that worked out, and I finally make it home. Wasted 30 yuan basically just to go across town and back for no particular reason.

I figure I'll spend this new found time productively, so I do a little grocery shopping, treat myself to some popcorn chicken and KFC, and settle into the bar to wait for the people who got the feast and birthday cake to wander in. I end up being there about an hour before everyone showed up, but it wasn't so bad because I met an Aussie while I was there. Anyway, we have a great old time for about two hours* and then I have to go home, of course, because I have to be up at 7:00 the next morning. I don't worry about it too much, though, because we have all night tomorrow night to hang out and I can see Wallace then and it'll just be a grand old time.

*Highlight of the night: We managed to convince Brock to get up and sing, so Brock and Charlie got onstage and sang "Wonderwall" with Wallace accompanying on a borrowed guitar. It was hillarious just because I really didn't expect it, but the actual performance was pretty good. They almost looked like they had rehearsed it, very well timed with the changes and everything.

Miraculously, I not only manage to make it into bed by midnight, I even manage to fall asleep! So, of course, I wake up in three hours because as far as my system is concerned, this is just a nap. Can't get back to sleep the rest of the morning, so I get on the bus with three hours of sleep in me ready to climb a mountain.

I guess I forgot to mention, this was an invitation by the administration (which in China means it was mandatory unofficially) to go to Mount Xiantai. We were advised that we would leave at 7:20, we would need to pack our own food and water, and we would be back "before evening" whatever that might mean. Fun...

So the shuttle leaves my campus late (7:40 or so), then gets stuck in traffic (complete gridlock at 8:00 on a Saturday), and finally makes it to Hilary's campus. It takes us another three hours to get to the mountain (which is only 80km away), and the ride is somehow even more uncomfortable than flying coach internationally. Oh, well, we're here now. Hilary and I poked around a bit, then we see the stairs. Climbing this particular mountain appears to be little different from climbing a sky scraper. Ok, cool, we get started.
The operative word here is "appears" no different. In fact, the stairs are very uneven, there's no hand rail for much of it (what handrail existed had "wet paint signs"), and many of the stairs were over a foot high. This basically was a great way for me to find out just how out of shape I am. The answer was: very. I basically had to stop every tier and rest, but the worst was the trick of the summit. Everytime you thought you were just about at the peak, you'd get to that platform and see another higher peak. The trail just wen on and on and on forever. I would have turned back, but Hilary kept pushing on, so I just kept going on sheer will-power. I think the best way of describing this considering my weight and the height of both the stairs and the mountian is thusly: I basically had to do a few hundred leg presses (one legged), and the more I did the thinner the atmosphere got. It was rough.

That is not to say, however, that it wasn't a valuable experience. The exercise was good, of course, but also the views were amazing and we got some killer pics of us on the last of the series of summits in our "conquering explorer" poses. I'm certainly glad, in hindsight, that I did it. Actually, I was thinking that pretty much the whole way up as I recall.

Going back down wasn't exactly a picnic either, though. After the work out of going up, our legs were turning to jelly, and like I said, the handrails were freshly painted; however, after the weakness in my legs started making me lose my balance, I decided I'd rather have a silver hand than a roll down a mountain. Finally, though, we made it back to the ground. At that point, we could barely walk up a gentle slope, but still...

So another three hours or so back into the city, and this time I'm tired enough that I can nap even through the wicked bouncing and shrill, high volume bus horn (which apparently was just music to the driver's ears). I honestly thought at any time, the bus would just rattle itself apart. We make it back and talk to Shargil about some dinner. He took us to a fairly nice place just down the street, and for only 40 yuan we got two big dishes, dumplings, and rice. Tasty stuff. Of special note was this fried eggplant dish that the Sha-man recommended. The exterior was reminiscent of a fried potato, but it was much creamier, of course, and had a brown sugar sauce (I think). I will definitely be going back there.

Ok, back home to shower up and prepare for another night's festivities. Oh wait, not quite. We find out when we call about plans that Dave broke his foot--walking, as far as I can tell. Tripped on some uneven ground, and there goes the neighborhood. Now Hilary's going straight over there, but I talk to Meredith and apparently we're all meeting up at the bar at nine. I get there, and its just Becky, Meredith, and Anthony (they're new French friend). "Where's everybody else?" "Oh, I guess they went out without us, maybe we'll meet up with them later." Rawr. Not that I had a bad time, really, since Matt of Minnesota (whom we had met before) popped in, and I like small groups anyway, but it sucked because the girls were, of course, calling it an early night since they had to be up early Sunday for their own excursion. So I head over with them to Club 42 to hopefully catch the rest of the gang coming home from the bar, but nothing. So my one night off, I have to call it a night at 1:00. Boooooooooooooooooooooo! And I didn't get to see Wallace at all, really. Rawr!

All-in-all, the weekend really seems like a bust for me. Some great experiences, but not nearly as fun as I imagined it being. Now I've got to get to work on some laundry and, God forbid, my lesson plan. I'm doing a Beatles presentation in my faster classes this week while the rest of the classes catch up. You'd think that'd be fun, but two goddamn hours... Plus, I always have to find a way to *make* my students participate because they refuse to voluntarily participate in an open discussion, but they also complain if everyone doesn't get to talk every time. Silly students.

Oh, well, on with my day, my week, my year...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Just another week in paradise...

Let me just start out with "I don't want to hear any complaints about how long it takes me to update; I'm doing the best I can with an internet that hates me."

I believe I left off with night market and dumplings. The dumpling experience was ok. We got our own room simply by being a group of 10, which was pretty cool. They don't cost extra or anything; around here you just get your own room by having a large group. We managed to only order one dish that was completely inedible. I mean that litterally. I'm pretty sure it was just breaded cartilage. Good sauce, but seriously, impossible to eat. The dumplings were pretty good (one set of tomato, one set of pork and scallions, and one pumpkin), but my favorite was the Beijing duck. That is some delicious food right there. I wish I could find some good places to eat around here, but then the others all wish they could get to McD's as easily as me. Still, they spend a lot less on a lot better food, though admittedly it's less comforting than the golden arches.
From there, it was on to night market. Ever seen somebody--say, at a big tourist spot or something--lay out some goods on a blanket on the street? Well, now imagine that hundreds of people did that for blocks and blocks on end. It's basically a mall that gets torn down every night and put back up the next evening. You can basically find anything from jewelry to shoes to clothes to posters to CDs to food to, well, so on and so forth. Nothing I wanted (there isn't a shirt in this country that would fit me, the posters are all really small and of Chinese pop stars, and who the hell pays for music anyway?), but the girls had a gay old time going through all the bits, bobs, and baubles offered. I guess I did consider getting a pipe, but it seems like such a hassle to haggle and then try to find decent pipe tobacco and blah blah blah. Fun to walk around, though, except for at each corner because it always smelled like there was (litterally) a pile of shit nearby. Best to stay away from the corners.

So, let's see. Thursday was unimportant. Friday, I found out that my last class was actually freshmen which meant that I wouldn't have them until next week. Sometimes, I really wonder why I bother showing up to classes at all. I'm starting to think the administration doesn't have a clue and doesn't particularly care. Oh, well, free afternoon...

That night, we all met up over at Club 42 (Brock's apartment building, basically) and just sat around all night drinking and carrying on. I do believe I had a bit too much... Well, it happens. Good times though. Saturday, on the other hand, was definitely a day of rest for all of us except Meredith and Becky (who had called it an early night, comparitively). I finally got back home and just shut myself in for the night (as did the other guys, I guess), but Meredith and Becky wandered out to the bar on their own. Met up with the pilots and didn't come home that night, apparently. Somehow, the pilots* managed to do what we never could and get them both just blitzed out of their minds. I think they slept in the airport...? I don't have all the details on what went down, though, so keep in mind this is all hearsay through Brock.

*A word on the pilots: I don't know if I've mentioned, but the bars here are swarming with Western pilots that are here training Chinese pilots. They seem to be people who just can't make it in the Western world and so have come here to shall we say escape reality. They're fairly annoying and always on the lookout for Western tail...

Sunday, I had planned to clean my room and get some laundry done, but slowly I just began to feel sick. I believe I started running a fever, and I was woozy all day long. Thank God I took it easy Saturday night, or I might have been in really bad shape. Anyway, I spent most of the day sleeping and watching movies, and by Monday morning I felt fine again... Well, as fine as I feel any morning, which isn't particularly good, I must concede. I wasn't sick any more, and let's just leave it at that.

Monday's classes went by, but I've run into a problem wherein my lesson plan (and I should only have one) won't fill some classes because they're so small but will take other classes weeks to finish because they're so big. Now I've run into the issue of what to make my faster classes do as my slower ones slowly catch up. I think basically, they're going to get free lectures on whatever every other week while the big ones will be bored and waiting for everything to finish. Sucks that I have to do extra lesson plans, of course, but I feel bad for the big classes, because they are going to get very bored, and I've yet to figure out how to counteract it. Well, perhaps in time.

Rough getting out of bed today since I barely slept. I finally pulled my first "roll out of bed 10 minutes before class and just wander over" sort of deal. It worked today since the students were presenting, but if I had to lecture... Ugh, I need a normal sleep cycle. Is that so much to ask? Apparently so, as my lifetime history demonstrates...

Anyway, no plans in the immediate future. I guess I've settled into a routine here. I'm really starting to feel this is going to be one of those experiences that at the end I say "I'm glad I did it...glad it's over" (courtesy of the Coonman). Who knows, though, perhaps when all is said in done, I'll really be sad to leave. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Live for the Weekend, Baby

Continuing to play catch-up...

Saturday, I had the great "fortune" to go shopping with the ladies. I was bored, it got me out of the apartment... It wasn't too bad, though. Some things are universal across cultures, and one of those things is the single lone man standing at the entrance to a store (often holding a purse) waiting for the woman or women he's with to finish looking at things they'll never buy. I say "universal" in that it occurs across cultures rather than it is universal within cultures (meaning all women and men experience this phenomenon). Meredith and Becky were a little late, however, and I found it unsuprising since they were taking the bus. Hilary and I decided to grab a snack at McD's while we waited, and there we sat, two Americans laughing and having a good time eating fries outside a McDonald's in China. I think we should have got paid for eating their food rather than the other way 'round, because we were obviously better advertising for them than the shit they pump out of the speaker system round the clock. Every McDonald's I've seen so far has a speaker system on its exterior that plays around five minutes of commercials disguised as music and always ends with a take on the "I'm lovin' it" theme. The first time we waited in front of a McD's (and we do often meet at them since they're so easy to find), Hilary and I refused our instinctual response to sing "I'm lovin' it" with the music. After a few weeks and some questionable food choices, I happily sing along because I am lovin' it much more than I did in the States. American Imperialism be damned, I feel much better knowing that at any time I can get a quarterpounder and fries. It's very comforting.

Regardless, we wandered about the Beiguo (an older shopping building) until we'd seen mostly everything. I say "building" rather than "mall" because it was made in a time in China during which stores were not strictly separated from each other. It would be similar to if in the States, American Eagle and Buckle and Pac Sun and Old Navy put all of their women's wear on one floor, men's on the next, and so on and every store shared the cash registers. It seems very disorganized and innefficient, but it certainly gives a "collective" feel... The top floor was different in that it was filled with small personal shops, like a market but six floors above the street. Meredith and Hilary got some earings made at one place--yes, they make them on the spot--and I contemplated a pipe, but I felt getting around the language barrier would be more hassle than it was worth.

After that, we ended up actually eating at the McD's because Becky was craving it. I had the quarterpounder for the first time, and wow... Not the same. The burgers are basically identical, the Big Mac is basically identical, but the official name is the "Quarterpound vegetable cheeseburger" and they mean it. It has cucumbers and (very) fresh lettuce, and some sort of really spicy sauce. Still very tasty, but not the same at all. Meredith and Hilary being pseudo-vegetarians, however, got the chicken. Opening up the sandwich, they decided they couldn't actually eat the chicken, either, for some combination of reasons involving both appearance and flavor. Didn't look that bad to me, but the little bit that Meredith had wreaked havoc on her system.

That night we hit the "Youth Year Beer Bar" in the hotel again. I had a good chat with Dave and Dan about what accents were present in Red Dwarf (impressing Dave because I was more accurate than Dan). Got into a bit of a debate with a Spaniard, though, who hated to be called Spaniard (he wouldn't say why). Discussed world politics and films and all the usual stuff for people our age. He and his crew (including two Kiwis and a South African) ran off our group from our table except for me since I can't ignore a debate and Meredith who ate up the attention from the other three boys like candy. Dave said later that he was on the verge of punching them all out for reasons that I didn't quite get.

The ride home was its own adventure, of course. We have to take two cabs for the eight of us, and Brock was dead set on mooning the girls' cab, so he keeps yelling at the driver to pull up past them--which of course the driver doesn't understand, but he does see that for some reason this drunk Yank is taking his pants off. He just giggled the whole way home, and Charlie, who was sitting in front and could observe him more closely, became confinced that our driver had had a few as well. At this point, the driver flipped on the radio and went straight to some techno which put Brock in a powerfully happy mood. I think it lended him the illusion of too much power, however, in that he tried to climb out of his window and scream at the city--all while we're doing something close to sixty down a mostly deserted city road. So there we are, Brock more than half out his window, me trying to drag him in by his belt, and Dan stuck between us somewhere between confused and amused. Quite a time.
I suppose I should point out at this stage that Brock is just totally off his ass black-out drunk. When we tried to take our one nightly shot (Bacardi this time) he immediately ran to the bathroom to puke, and of course being in that shithole makes you want to puke when you're stone sober.

Finally we get home, and the girls and Dave retire for the evening, but I keep demanding more beer (oddly enough, they were completely out), and Charlie wants some food, so we just start walking down the street in search of a restaurant that might still be open at 2. At the very end of the street, we find a place and get some sweet and sour chicken and some beef noodles. The noodles were alright, but the chicken... second best meal I've had in China. Plus, they still had beer left. Awesome.

On the walk home, Brock decided to hurl his bottle at a wall (thank God, it was deserted), then broke a bottle in his living room, and finally called it a night. I stayed up to watch the rest of Return of the Jedi on cable and in English no less, then called it a night. Good times.

Sunday noon, they wake us up demanding food. We couldn't get Meredith, but the rest of us head down to KFC. I really like the KFC wraps here, but their fries leave something to be desired, and all of the ketchup here is really sweet, no salt or vinegar in it. Ew. After the walk back, I'm dreading going home and having to do another lesson plan, so I sat at Meredith's for another six hours watching TV and movies. I finally decide I have to get moving, only to find out that Hilary (who has my address written down) has already left. Damn. I thought I could make it home with "hebei shida yuhua" but luckily, Dave had a copy of my address that he could give me (he didn't know which campus was Hilary's, so he just got both, and obviously he doesn't need mine...). Got home, procrastinated, managed to find a site on "American holidays" and decided to give my students the college student version of the value of each holiday. Of course, I try to go to sleep, and the combination of getting up so late and doing nothing all day has culminated in me being unable to sleep. I got no more than twenty minutes of sleep every hour or so until I had to get up for class.
My Monday morning class went alright. I actually managed to take up the whole time, and the students seemed to enjoy the change in what they considered the "stock holiday lesson" to be more focussed on people their ages. One negative turn, however... I was hoping that my juniors would be continuing to not show up this week like my freshmen, but during class Mr. Guo came in and gave me a revised schedule which included four more hours of class that afternoon. Booooooooooo. I was most upset, really, just because I was counting on a nap.

Well, around here, you just have to bite you lip and go for the ride. My junior classes were alright, but I didn't do too well on Fib the Teacher this time. I've fallen to under 50%, though this does beat the simplest probabilities.
Tuesday, I thought I would be giving my holidays lesson again, but when I came into the classroom, most of my kids got up and left. I watched them go, confused, but assuming they were in the wrong class. After a few minutes, they come back, say something to my students (whom I recognized from last time) and now my students left and this whole new group of 30 was in my room. I see Shanjyo walking back and forth, confused as well, and ask him what's going on. He says he's not sure and heads off to find out what class he should have. After a few minutes, I find him in his classroom with my class. I ask him if we should just start over our lessons or talk to the administrators or what, and he says, "We can't be bothered with the bureaucracy, just do whatever." So its back to my introductions lecture again, hurrah. Thankfully, that was my only class that day.

Hugh and Shanjyo stopped by in the early evening to discuss this series of changes, but the focus quickly switched to the S-man going through all of my DVDs and stuff. Amazingly, he's a fellow anime fan, a huge X-Men fan, and played D&D in his youth. Not only that, but the massive amount of Simpsons, South Park, and Futurama I have on my computer shocked and amazed. I do believe we'll get to be good mates this semester, but like most, he's only staying for the one semester. A shame...

So Wednesday is upon me. Got up pretty late despite the music and the chanting and all the other things trying to gurantee I'm awake at sunrise. Tonight we're all getting together in Hilary's neighborhood for some dumplings and "night market." I guess every night in Hilary's area, people just turn a major street into an unofficial bazaar, and you can find almost anything. I doubt I'll be purchasing anything, but it will be good to get a feel for the market now when I don't need it.

Sadly, I no longer have my Thursdays off, but at least its only afternoon classes. We'll have some fun tonight--but not too much--and hopefully I can finish out the week without anymore surprises.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I've got to admit, it's getting better...

Soooooooooooo hard to get through to post around here...

So my second class, the doors were locked. I made sure I was in the right room, waited around for a bit, and then tried the offic of teaching affairs. That was also locked. Oh, damn. So I go back to wait for a while in front of the classroom, and five minutes after class should have started, I go back to the office. It's now open, so I try to ask what the issue is, but I can't find the English speaking secretary. They finally get someone who can *mostly* understand the problem, make a few calls, can't figure out the problem, then realize I'm talking about a junior level class.

Apparently the juniors don't start for two more weeks.

This sort of thing is common around here. It sometimes seems to me that no one has a clue what's going on, and no one wants to take responsibility for it. Good for me overall, however, since I now only had to teach one more class for the week.

My second class went much better. I had a little more prepared to talk about, and there were only 11 in this class, which helps. I did the same as my first class (which I managed to stretch to an hour this time), then we played a little game called fib the teacher. Out of a group of five, each would say five things about themselves, but one would lie. I had to guess who the liar was. I did very poorly on the first group, but I nailed the second group on the first try. Yeah. We talked a little more about America and whatnot, but I still ended up letting them out a little early. I'll stop this early outness next week, but c'mon, its the first day. It should be shorter.

I spent all of Wednesday doing nothing in particular, but I did suffer a few internet outages. Thursday, I had a meeting with the dean at 5:00 accompanied by Mr. Guo, Hugh, and the last member of our English teaching team, Shajyo (that name may not be quite right). I thought it went pretty well (though I usually find Hugh very embarassing; he's quite a Mr. Ryan), but then we got an invite to dinner. Turns out this "half-hour meeting" would also include a very large meal. I had had plans with Hilary for afterward, but when I tried to explain that I needed to cancel them, Mr. Guo gives me this look like "the emperor has invited you, you must accept!" So Hilary got to wait around in my lobby confused until someone showed her how to get to the next destination on her journey.

The meal itself, however, was a very good time. Good food, by far the best I've had in China, was met with good beer, many toasts, and good conversation. They even had beef and mushroom which is nearly identical in taste to American Chinese food, but it has different mushrooms. Very tasty, and I quite impressed the locals with my ability not only to use chopsticks, but with my left hand no less. Yes, I'm quite the oddity here.

Of course, I get back and there's no electricity. Raphaelle (I'm assuming that's how it's spelled) tells me that this happens fairly often. All I have to do is go downstairs and get a new electricity card. A painless procedure, but if it were to happen while I was playing a game or writing a paper and I lost it, I'd be so pissed. Oh, well. When in Shijiazhuang...

Today, I woke up feeling a little rundown. I actually didn't get out of bed until four when Hilary called to say she was coming over. So I finally got moving, got showered, and we wandered out in search of DVD's. No luck there, but we did stop for dinner at this really nice hotel, looks like a Hilton Suites or something. They have an excellent Western buffet, and I actually got steak and mashed potatos and ice cream and coffee for the first time in a looooooooong time. It might have been a mistake all-in-all, however, because actually having the food made me realize how long its been and how much longer it will be. Good fodder for homesickness. Expensive as hell, too. 78 yuan for a meal instead of 3 (that's $10 rather than $.50 to Americans). Maybe make it a weekly ritual, but we'll see.

Tomorrow... maybe hit the bars again with the Club 42 crew. I beginning to think that Hil and I are just out of the loop with them; we get no invites for whatever it is they're up to. I hope I didn't offend the Brits or something unwittingly. Monday, it's back to the grind. This would be awesome, if it weren't for all the working and whatnot.